Skip to main content

Putting Women Back into the Picture

December 14, 2022

In a new report, students study the intersection between arts, culture, and gender-based stereotypes to better understand trends in law and policy worldwide.

Written by Blanche Helbling L’21, a former student in de Silva de Alwis’s course, “International Women’s Human Rights.”

Arts and culture play critical roles in shaping the social norms that are reflected in and reinforced by laws across the world.

This semester, students in “Women, Law, and Leadership” — a trailblazing course taught by Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Senior Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership and Visiting Faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Expert Member to the treaty body on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women — reflected on the ways in which visual art has impacted women’s societal power throughout the course of history. The class compiled their work in a collaborative report entitled “Putting Women Back into the Picture,” which features dozens of visual art pieces spanning a multitude of media, cultures, and historical eras.

“Through a world-class line up of guest speakers and critical discussions of independent thinking, Professor de Silva de Alwis’ Women Law and Leadership provided me with an all-encompassing picture of the profound challenges that women and other marginalized individuals face in cultivating their own leadership styles in a variety of settings, including in law firms, non-profit boards, corporate meetings, and even law school classrooms,” said  Alexis Arroyo L’24, a student in the course. “This class was the first time in law school that ‘things clicked’ for me and I began to see the power in leaning into my own strengths to cultivate my own leadership.”

For, Arroyo, the project underscored the importance of the work that women throughout history have put into creating more equitable prospects for future generations.

Alexis Arroyo L'24 Alexis Arroyo L'24“To me, ‘Putting Women Back into the Picture’ spoke directly to intergenerational impact that women in our lives have in cultivating inspiration, imagination, and most importantly, progress,” said Arroyo. “This report not only features famous female figures, but also mothers, grandmothers, and other relatives that are cultivating the next generation of leaders at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. Leaning into this theme, I selected a quilt by my Grammie, who overcame much adversity in her life to get to the point where she enjoyed leisure time to foster this craft.”

Throughout the report, students analyzed historic, contemporary, and personal artworks through gender, racial, and colonial lenses. In one of her contributions, Arroyo shared a photograph of a quilt made by her grandmother. After facing much adversity throughout her life, Arroyo’s grandmother started quilting, as “a hobby, a talent, and a love language.”

Arroyo's grandmother's hand-made quilt Arroyo's grandmother's hand-made quilt“After every one of our classes, I always text my Grammie to share how the class content reminded me of her,” Arroyo said. “My Grammie has challenged the many notions of traditional paradigms of white, male, strong leadership throughout her corporate career in the biotechnology industry and is always seeking ways to promote women empowerment in this field through attending conferences, displaying emotional intelligence for her team, a powerful attribute of a team-driven leader, and sponsorship. The quilt image showcases her resilience, success, and love for those who are lucky to be considered her family.”

The following is an excerpt of “Putting Women Back into the Picture”:

This small project on personal and political art and photography grew out of our class’s study of the “Oxford and the Empire” project and the role of art and photography in constructing gender, race, and class. The Oxford photo exhibition is a critical exploration of the way in which the British Empire was represented as a civilizing project at Oxford, the breeding ground of the Empire. While white women were portrayed as women of culture and leisure, women in the colonies were portrayed as those engaged in hard labor. This stereotyped depiction of women demanded critical examination through gender, race, and post-colonial lenses.

A review of Katy Hessel’s exquisitely probing text on “The Story of Art Without Men” concludes that “It will take many more feats of scholarship and advocacy before the center of gravity of the white, male, western, imperial canon is exploded, and women are fully written into global art history. Another initiative that influenced the class was the recent Morgan Library’s exhibition “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia” on the world’s first author, the poet and priestess Enheduanna. While the world has come to recognize Homer as the first known writer, Enheduanna is a female figure lurking in the shadows of history. We have placed Enheduanna back in the picture as our cover page art. Lauren Yagoda [L’23], a student in the class, has written her essay in the tradition of a Homeric epic, but this time about a woman of the 21st century, a leading Black woman lawyer and art collector, the General Counsel of the New York Public Library who joined our class as a guest speaker. Lauren’s creative work on leadership develops an alternative to the Great Man Theory of Leadership which was spawned by the Homeric epics. This multidimensional gallery of art, photography, and monuments by a group of young lawyers and law students is a small contribution to putting those women back into the picture.

Read the entirety of “Putting Women Back into the Picture.”

Explore more scholarship produced by Women, Law, and Leadership trailblazers.